Driverless cars in London, solar power in Lisbon: Six European cities taking smart cities forward

Lisbon: one of Europe's smartest cities. Image: Getty.

The leaders of six major European cities have joined forces to explore how digital technologies can be used to improve the quality of life for their  citizens.

Sharing Cities, a new project led by London, Lisbon and Milan – with Bordeaux, Burgas and Warsaw participating as “fellows” – will boost the European smart city market by demonstrating that thoughtfully designed ICT-based solutions, based on common needs, can be integrated in complex urban environments. The six cities in this pioneering consortium will share ideas, know-how, assets and infrastructure, and involve experts, businesses and citizens in their quest for strategic ICT-based solutions.

The Sharing Cities project will last for five years, including two dedicated to monitoring its impact. The project draws on €25m in EU funding, and should trigger up to €500 million in private sector investment. As it develops it should also bring on board a further hundred or so municipalities from across Europe, and generate hundreds of new jobs.

The project will serve as a testing ground for new digitally enabled business models, which will prompt cities, industry and citizens to collaborate across cultures and borders. It’ll focus on a number of different work streams:

  • Changing behaviour and attitude to energy consumption through efficiency and conservation measures;
  • Implementing and testing sustainable e-mobility solutions;
  • Reducing emissions of air and water pollutants;
  • And increasing the supply of affordable social housing through new construction and the retrofitting of existing buildings.

The collaboration between the cities will be supported by an urban data platform built on open standards complete with a common reference architecture and shared service model.

Meanwhile, on the ground

Perhaps closer to home and easier to relate to is the plan to install intelligent street lighting systems that double as free wifi points. Electric car and bike sharing schemes, and even driverless vehicles, are also included in the plans. Across the board, the emphasis is on going digital – and going green.

In early January 2016, around seventy officials, experts and stakeholders from the six partner cities met in Brussels to launch the project. Eurocities hosted the launch event and, as a network of 135 local governments in over 30 European countries, we will enable the partners to share best practices, explore how to transfer these best practices into the local context, and help cities to choose the most efficient communications tools.

Each of the leading cities is designating one of their districts to act as a demonstration area. The Greater London Authority, for example, has designated one of its most strategic locations, the Royal Borough of Greenwich. The borough is home to over 250,000 people, and combines state-of-the-art attractions like the O2 arena with up-and-coming facilities for the local startup community.

Emphasising citizen engagement, Greenwich will undertake an extensive housing regeneration programme in cooperation with two local innovative SMEs. It plans to implement a low-carbon heat network to service new homes, and will investigate the potential to use waste heat. The council will launch a UK pilot on electric bikes and autonomous vehicles, and will expand its network of charging stations. By installing solar panels on homes, the council will aim to significantly reduce energy bills and carbon emissions.

Lisbon has chosen its historic 10km2 downtown area (population: 100,000) as the venue for a major ICT upgrade. The city’s focus is on refurbishing and re-inhabiting social housing districts, and promoting the use of photovoltaic and solar thermal systems to increase energy efficiency. Lisbon’s overall ambition is to implement an integrated energy management system, and also to use ICT tools to enhance it public transportation network. The widespread introduction of electric vehicles is also on the cards.

In Milan, the pilot area is a 216,000m2 brownfield and former railway yard in the Porta Romana/Vettabbia district, which is under complete redevelopment. Currently, 60 per cent of the city’s buildings have the lowest G or F energy class rating; Milan’s aim is to significantly improve this figure through innovative energy efficiency measures. Having adopted a “sharing policy framework”, the city will develop a comprehensive retrofitting intervention strategy based on public-private collaboration.

Meanwhile, the “follower” cities will do more than just listen and take notes. Bordeaux, a leader in the field of digital innovation and holder of the “French Tech” city label, wants to couple ICT use and sustainable development with its ambition to make cultural pluralism the cornerstone of social cohesion among its 750,000 inhabitants.

Burgas, Bulgaria’s fourth largest city with over 210,000 people, has been pursuing a number of major infrastructure projects, including an integrated urban transport system, a new waste management plant and a refurbished water supply and sewage network. For Burgas, drafting and implementing a responsible environmental policy is one of the project's key deliverables.

Warsaw, the largest city in Poland with a population of 1.7m, seeks to identify and eventually implement ICT-based solutions to help it reduce CO2 emissions and increase the share of renewable energy sources by 20 per cent by 2020. The digitalisation of the city's public transportation network and the introduction and adoption of electric vehicles are also on the Polish capital’s to-do list.

These ambitious plans inevitably raise questions, such as: can the six cities achieve all this in a matter of five years? As always, automatic progression is obviously not a given. But the stage is already set: these six cities are now learning to share – and sharing to learn.

Anna Lisa Boni is the secretary general of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.


Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 

What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.